Dr Jon Ritchie is the Contemporary Histories Research Group’s representative in Papua New Guinea as he undertakes field research. Dr Ritchie is a Senior Research Fellow at Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. While in PNG, Jon will be writing regular ‘postcards’ for the Contemporary Histories Research Group, reflecting on current news in the region.
Port Moresby Postcard #1 – 31 January 2016
“Three weeks ago, on Tuesday, 12 January, Britain’s The Sun tabloid splashed what for many here in Papua New Guinea was the worst news possible: assault, robbery, and rape of two overseas tourists on the Kokoda Track. This was terrible. Just as Papua New Guinea was beginning to take its first steps to really developing its tourism market, seemingly its old nemesis of savagery and violence had come back. The tourism train had been bushwhacked, apparently, by three young Papua New Guinean men who – it was reported – ‘beat and stripped the terrified pair’ of young backpackers, before attacking them with machetes, stealing their clothes and belongings, and raping the woman, an American, while her English boyfriend was held captive and taunted with threats of death. Eventually the couple were able to escape and find help at a village further along the Trail, from where they were helicoptered to safety.
Nothing could have been more horrific. ‘Brit and girlfriend kidnapped, stripped, beaten and tortured by jungle tribe’ was how The Sun – still the UK’s second most widely read newspaper – began its story. Here in Port Moresby, there was outrage that PNG’s reputation as an unsafe place to visit had been reinforced through the actions of young raskols. Only a day into his new job as Tourism Minister, the popular Justin Tkatchenko spoke for many Papua New Guineans when he told a local newspaper ‘If I have my way, I’ll have all these criminals that raped this innocent woman castrated. They don’t deserve to live…’.
From the outset, however, there were rumours of things not quite adding up with the story. The male backpacker had been identified in The Sun’s story as a ‘brand consultant … who appeared in Channel 4 survival show Shipwrecked’, and some aspects of the way their story had been told to The Sun smacked of reality television.
A week after the attack, the many apparent flaws in the account were forensically identified in a blog by Charlie Lynn (a NSW Upper House Member and veteran Kokoda trekker). Lynn – who has walked the Track 79 times – challenges almost every aspect of the story based on his experience and understanding of the terrain, the weather, and the character of the largely Seventh-day Adventist people who live along the Track. Others have similarly jumped to the defence of the people, most eloquently the Chief Executive Officer of the KTF (formerly Kokoda Track Foundation), Genevieve Nelson. As I write this postcard, the backlash is mounting as more and more people are questioning whether what The Sun reported as happened, actually did happen.
Whether the couple’s allegations are found correct or not, many people here in PNG see the damage has already been done. The astounding natural beauty and friendliness of the people notwithstanding, Papua New Guinea has suffered from a simply terrible international reputation that dates back decades, even centuries. The alleged Kokoda Trail attack fits neatly into the litany of violence and savagery that began with the fate of murdered missionaries like James Chalmers, continued with patrol officers Gerald Szarka and Geoffrey Harris, and has persisted to this day, with the recent attack on the Black Cat Trail. That everyone who heard the story – from Government Minister to the man in the street who sold me the newspaper – immediately assumed its truthfulness says much about how Papua New Guineans perceive themselves.
There are so many aspects to this story: violence against women, the relationship between development and kastom, the place of undereducated and unemployed young men, the growth of a fragile tourism sector, and so on. Like a Russian doll, the story of the Kokoda assault just keeps opening up. What lies at its heart may never be discovered.
The author with friends from Kagi village, midway along the Kokoda Track (4 July 2014 – photo by Catherine Nolan)
The couple ‘the day before hell trek began’
Image Source – The Sun